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Why J.J. Abrams Gets A Special Thanks In The Credits Of Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley

Directors can be quite a chummy bunch when you get to know them, especially if you happen to be a director yourself. Guillermo del Toro knows this, as he’s always had a reliable group of friends that have helped him make big decisions in his filmmaking career. Thanks to his current film Nightmare Alley, a new name seems to have been added to that roster, as J.J. Abrams scored a special thanks credit in del Toro’s latest cinematic tale. How that credit was earned came down to a couple of questions, and a key choice that the Star Wars filmmaker suggested, in order to nail down the rhythm of the overall film. 

That choice was ultimately linked to Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle, and more specifically when we would first hear him speak as a character. As we discussed Nightmare Alley during the press day for the film, Mr. del Toro shared with CinemaBlend just how much he values collaboration and feedback from his peers. In that spirit, this is why he credited J.J. Abrams with a “special thanks” on the project: 

Oh J.J., Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Iñárritu, they come and look at the cut in different stages. I like a very open editing room … J.J. came in, and I think he asked four questions very pointedly, and they led to great answers. One of the things we’d been investigating from the beginning is when does Stan begin talking; because we needed Stan to be a guy that looked around and learned. But when is the first time he talks? We had it a little differently, and then J.J. said, ‘Why don’t you try this?’, and that’s what’s in the movie.

Nightmare Alley starts off rather cryptically, as our first introduction to Stanton Carlisle is when he’s lighting a house on fire. Escaping his deeds, he hops on a bus out of town and arrives at the pivotal point in his destiny. About to head to a diner, Bradley Cooper’s protagonist finds his eye wandering towards a traveling carnival, which puts into motion a chain reaction that leads to his ever winding fate.

True to Guillermo del Toro’s description above, we spend an extended period of time watching the mute Stan take in the sights of his future workplace. It’s only when he’s recruited to hunt down the recently-escaped geek performer that we finally hear his first words, which are addressed to his would-be quarry. We see part of this moment in the first trailer for the movie, which was also fittingly devoid of any dialogue from Mr. Cooper's character. It’s uncertain where that break in the dialogue occurred in the previous version of the film, but as it stands, Stanton Carlisle’s first lines act as a punctuation on an enigmatic character. 

Experiments in how scenes would play out seem to be the driving force behind how the finished version of Nightmare Alley was found in the editing room. Running for two and a half hours, this was after quite a bit of trimming, as Guillermo del Toro admitted a much longer cut was the starting point for this evolution. Just like J.J. Abrams helped shape our introduction to Stanton Carlisle, another director gave del Toro a note that would come in handy throughout those edits: 

Michael Mann gave me one of the best pieces of advice for the movie. The movie was 2 hours 50 [minutes] when I showed it to him, from the original cut of 3 [hours and] 30 [minutes]. And the reaction from, I said, ‘Does it feel too long?’ and he said, ‘It doesn’t feel long. You should actually be more brutal with all the moments and not make everything so grand.’ So we went in and we were brutal, starting scenes in the middle, ending before they were finished.

Three different versions could already be claimed to exist in the world of Nightmare Alley: the three and a half hour initial cut, the almost three hour “grand” cut and the two and a half hour version that’s in existence. Oddly enough, Michael Mann isn’t a stranger to such a scenario, as he’s banked and released alternate versions for films like Miami Vice and even his 1995 classic Heat. With roughly an hour excised from del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, there’s no telling what lies in the footage that found itself stored away, potentially to live another day. If we get either or both of those versions in the future, there’ll definitely be room on that “Special Thanks” credits roll for whomever helps make it possible. 

Nightmare Alley is currently in theaters, so if you’re inclined to enjoy some noir goodness with your holiday season, it’s there for you. Otherwise, you can start lining your movie watching schedule up for next year with 2022’s release schedule. It surely beats trying to psychically conjure those dates, as that sort of racket could lead to some serious trouble if you’re not careful. 

Mike Reyes

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.